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Della Borton is a pseudonym for Lynette Carpenter, professor of English at Ohio Wesleyan University, where she teaches a film course. She is also the author of Fade to Black. As D. B. Borton, she is the author of the Cat Caliban mystery series.
I've always been a night person. There is something about the sights, sounds, smells of night, the feel of night, that appeals to me. For one thing, darkness concentrates the mind and senses. Daytime floods my senses with too many impressions, creating a sensory soup in which no ingredient is distinctive. At night, there is less competition. What light exists is more particular about what it chooses to illuminate. Night is the time of silhouettes; you can appreciate the shapes of things in a way that is impossible on even the cloudiest of days. In darkness the scent of a lily or hyacinth can expand to fill the universe. The slightest brush of a breeze against the skin is more sensuous. The rising and falling hum of crickets and the sounds of other night creatures are more noticeable. Weather events are more dramatic--snowfalls more luminous in moonlight, lightning more dazzling against a night sky. And when the stars come out on a cloudless night, they are like a net of diamonds flung across black infinity. Who can look at them and not feel some elemental stirring in her soul, whether astronomical or astrological? Night is the time to breathe deeply and think deeply.
And now, after years of living like everyone else, my days revolved around my nights. No more rude awakenings, no more sleepy showers. While other women my age, other middle-aged middle managers, were stuffing their legs into pantyhose tight as sausage casings, ironing blouses, applying makeup to bleary eyes, and stumbling out the door with briefcases hanging from their arms, I was sound asleep. While they were power lunching or power walking, I was just getting up. And about the time they were starting to check their watches, I was on my way to work.
The theater business has its advantages.
On the downside, I only saw stars on my way home, and my nights were filled with the scent of popcorn, not lilies. The weather had taken on a significance previously unknown to me, not least of which was its potential to wreak havoc with the electrical supply in my small Ohio town. I saw no one on my way home at one A.M., at least, no one who was willing to speak to me. And I didn't even have time to watch the movies I was showing.
That last remark is meant to be taken figuratively. As owner of the Paradise Theatre in Eden, Ohio, a property reluctantly inherited from my recently deceased Aunt Maesie, I could be said to be "showing movies." In actuality, the technical side of the operation, including the showing of movies itself, was handled by my business associate, theater manager, and head projectionist, my cousin Duke. My reluctance to involve myself in that aspect of the business had become a source of some tension between us.
What I liked about movies, I maintained, was the magic of those stories, unwinding in the darkness on the silver screen. I wanted to continue believing in that magic, perfectly focused, perfectly framed, without doing any of the mechanical business of focusing and framing myself, which would spoil the illusion. I also have the manual dexterity and mechanical aptitude of a platypus. I pointed this out frequently to my cousin. Duke wouldn't buy it. No daughter of a Hollywood song-and-dance team, not to mention all of the other industry people I was niece, aunt, granddaughter, sister, and cousin to, was permitted to be that naive.
That's how I came to be standing in an overheated projection booth on a May afternoon. What the weather was outside, I couldn't tell you; there was a soundproof booth and several layers of building between me and it.
"Now, you take this like so," Duke said, eyeing me through thick lenses to make sure I was paying attention. He had seized one end of the film between thumb and forefinger. He was a big kid, even for seventeen, and looked squashed by the ceiling of the projection booth like Orson Welles in all those low-angle shots from Citizen Kane.
"And then you--" He held it to his mouth and licked it.
"You're putting me on."
"I'm not!" he said indignantly, opening his eyes.
"That's gr-r-ross!" I said. "No way."
"You have to, Gilda! It's what they do!"
"You don't know where that thing's been," I said.
He heaved an exasperated sigh. "Well, look, if you don't want to lick it, you can just--" And he held the thing to his mouth and rubbed it across his bottom lip.
"Well, that's a relief," I said. "That looks so much more sanitary. Why, in the name of Louis B. Mayer, would anybody do such a thing?"
"Look, one side is slick, and the other is kinda sticky. That's how you know whether the film's been wound on the reel with the right side out or not. Just because we do things right around here doesn't mean everybody does. Half the time these multiplexes got some flunky on projection who could care less whether he's got things right side up or not, and wouldn't know how to tell if he didn't."
"Like me," I put in. Ignorance is bliss.
"But you," he said, extending the film to me, "will know better."
When I had first started working with Duke, in those early days after Aunt Maesie's funeral, he had struck me as a painfully shy, awkward teenager. His stash of science fiction novels and computer equipment in his private digs upstairs tagged him as a classic nerd. He seemed, in fact, a complete contrast to the actor he'd been named for. But now that he was more comfortable with me, now that we'd officially become partners and I had gained some experience in working with him, I'd discovered a more confident, even commanding, side to him. Within the walls of the Paradise, he wielded as much authority as John Wayne in the saddle. He had run the theater on his own those last months while Maesie was ill--no small feat for a high school kid. Maesie had taught him everything she knew so that he could take care of the theater they both loved after she was gone. I figured she'd left the place to me because I was a grown-up, and because I was the least interfering member of my highly meddlesome family. I had certainly never wanted to interfere with the projection equipment in any way; the ticket dispenser was almost more than I could handle, and the popcorn machine terrified me. But Duke had insisted that I become a projectionist.
"The art of projection," he'd said, in the serious voice that signaled a quotation from my Aunt Maesie, "has a long and venerable history."
We had the projectors to prove it. The one I was confronting right now was a Century behemoth that looked like it had been hanging around since the day after Al Jolson said "You ain't heard nothin' yet."
"So why would you want to screw it up by getting me involved?" I'd asked. "Would you want to be a terrorist's junior high chemistry teacher? Or the Roman senatorial knife grinder on the fourteenth of March? You want to follow in the footsteps of the United Artists executive who greenlighted Heaven's Gate?"
But he refused to be distracted or deterred.
"Anyone can project," he'd said on another occasion in the same voice, "but not everyone who can project is a projectionist."
I thought he was probably half right. I'm suspicious of all statements that begin "Anyone can."
Seeing me hesitate now, he turned to the makeup bench, picked up a pair of scissors, and snipped the end off the film.
"See?" he said. "No cooties."
Intellectually, I knew he'd only cut a piece off the leader. But I was still enough of a novice to experience a cardiac flutter when the plastic fragment hit the floor. After all, this film was somebody else's property. What if he'd just eliminated the hundred-and-first dalmatian?
I took the film from him and tentatively rubbed first one side, then the other, across my bottom lip. He was watching me like an anxious chef.
"Okay," I said. "One side is stickier than the other. But how am I gonna remember which side goes out? At my age the brain cells are kind of worn. Will you write me a note?"
He made a face the way he always did when I made a point of my creeping senility, and said, "Sure, if you want me to."
Actually, every surface in the room was already covered with enough diagrams and cautionary notes to intimidate Dr. Strangelove. Most were in Maesie's neat hand, some were in Duke's scrawl. Some of them were so yellowed with age I wondered whether they were still applicable, or if they were mementos of some bygone piece of equipment.
"And while we're on the subject, could you also write out some instructions for that new cappuccino machine? I get so flustered when we're crowded, I can't remember how to work the damn thing."
"We're not," he said sternly, "on that subject, but okay, I will. Now, pay attention, Gilda. Once you know you've got the film loaded on the platter right, you thread it through here like this."
I watched him with a sinking heart as he threaded the film along its intricate path, pointing out various potential hazards along the way. Menopausal women, even those without kids around, shouldn't be expected to acquire new technical skills that demanded a lot of short-term memory. And then thinking of kids reminded me of the ones I'd lost in the breakup with Liz, and I thought about how I was going to miss Paulie's graduation from junior high, and then about how we weren't supposed to call him "Paulie" anymore but "Paul," and I teared up a little, so I forced myself to think about when my own son, John, had made the transition from "Johnny" to "Jack" after reading Profiles in Courage, and I wondered how John's latest gig was going out in L.A., and how long his current band would last, and--
Duke was looking at me.
"What did I just sa...